Rick’s 1991 Journal — El Salvador Trip Notes

December, 1991

This is a rough copy of my journal from the two week Center For Global Education tour I took with 22 others. For simplicity and for the safety of some of the locals we met, I've made minor changes in a few names, places and times. We very likely will sponsor a return trip for 12 days in December, 1992. Any part of this journal may be reprinted. Thank you for reading about my experience in these countries — Rick.

Culture Shock without Jet Lag: Flying South

On the drive to the airport talk radio entertained normal folks mourning the imprisonment and suffering of white hostages in Lebanon and dealt with the problem of making after-Thanksgiving left-overs more interesting. First World loved ones wondered why anyone would go to the risk and expense of visiting El Salvador and Nicaragua. I was reminded that I have a wife and children. A trip down there was risky.

The Houston airport lobby, filled with Salvadorans, was a developing world anti- chamber. Men sported new boom boxes and women carried flight bags on their heads. I was charmed by their beautiful kids, but wondered where they get their money? Boarding the plane I passed a family in first class who paid a campesino's annual wage for the option to fly on that side of the curtain.

It took thirty minutes for the flight attendant to get everyone straightened out - people in the right seat, bags properly stowed, overhead lockers finally squeezed shut. The problem was the norm. Our flight landed on time.

Hot and muggy, we disembarked to be greeted by El Salvador's most famous poster child: the one-legged "the innocent victim of the leftist guerrillas." She hadn't moved since my visit three years ago. But a new guy stood next to her, a poster of ARENA party president Cristiani. It will be interesting to see just how El Salvador's "fledgling democracy," as our embassy calls it, has grown since my 1988 visit and in the two years since the far right wing ARENA party assumed power. There is a tense, fragile but hopeful truce in the air and we sailed right out of the airport, through the throng of craned necks and black heads and into the street to meet our guide. He had seven busy days of meetings and experiences lined up for our group of 22. This was "educational tourism" and the class was "problems, poverty and politics of Central America." Part one was El Salvador. Next week we'd do part two: Nicaragua.

First Day. Liberation, Opium and Orphans

We started our Sunday visiting a liberation theology church in a poor neighborhood of San Salvador. Local children learn the bible through developing world eyes. When asked in what form Jesus was sent to them, they answer "poor." This is the church of the "popular class"...standing room only under corrugated tin and dangling neon. The paper doves on the wall are named "Justicia" and "Amore".

In the rebel offensive of 1989 this church was bombed. The new church was built just outside the community but this is a base Christian community, the briquettes of the popular dissent, and they insist on worshipping inside their neighborhood. This is their reality. Their life is faith based. If the priest wanted anyone to preach to, he would have to preach inside the community.

Churches that are part of an organized community are persecuted. This church, San Salvador's oldest and most active base Christian congregation, has lost over 620 martyrs, all slain since 1980. After the bombing it was too dangerous to worship here so they went into their "period of pilgrimage" moving weekly from home to home.

Standing at the back of the church, my eleven year old girl friend in a white dress, big brown eyes and a ponytail tied in pink tugged on my arm and introduced me to the portrait of "El Signor" above us. Romero, the assassinated archbishop, hung next to portraits of three of the neighborhood's martyrs. The paintings, riddled with machine gun holes, showed the anger this poor community aroused.

El Salvador's largest coin is worth a dime. The offering was only coins. A soldier, equipped with two years' wages worth of uniform and weaponry stood outside, low profile but very much there. As the congregation stood I could count all 24 of our group. Even Art was tall in this crowd.

After the mass we met with some women church and community leaders. Their favorite book was the Acts of the Apostles and they modeled themselves after the first Christian communities. "The gospel is to be practiced, not just read. Then it becomes the living word." Their one message to us: "our beloved El Salvador needs you to help stop this war."

After lunch we had a free hour at the hotel. Two blocks away a stadium was filled and festive. A fundamentalist revival, government blessed and well-funded, was packing them in. Ushers in bright outfits and big smiles, a powerful sound system, pop music and all the escapist theology out-stretched arms can handle. Religion in the squalor of Central America can be a powerful opiate. When the Catholic church went popular, "sects," as the locals call the charismatic, fundamental-type churches that remind the poor that your rewards await in heaven, appeared to fill that void. The message: "We are not of this world (but vote for me anyway)."

Later that day we drove out of town, into a conflictive zone near the Guazapa volcano, to a Lutheran-sponsored orphanage. We celebrated the mass with the teachers and children of the orphanage. Eucharist of tortillas and wine from a Cinzano bottle. Afterwards the kids entertained. The tots doing jumping bean- type dances to tunes called "the frog" and "Everybody loves bananas." They wore green shirts, given to them as the class of the offensive of '89. (There is a new wave of orphans after each offensive in this civil war.) The war is pervasive here. Even the kid's Christmas songs talk of happy days when the war is over.

Martyred Nuns and the '89 offensive

December 2. Eleven years ago today three nuns and a lay worker (all US citizens) were stopped by the military on the way into the capital from the airport, taken down a side road, raped, tortured and murdered. We drove to the spot for a memorial service presided over by six priests including a bishop from California.

Maryknoll sisters played guitar and sang as Gringos and locals remembered. Small guitars, sweet voices,the tropical drone of bugs, and a percussion of machetes hacking sugar cane in the distance. Sweat dripped about a drop every ten seconds from the bishop's chin as he reminded us that it is great to die for truth but it is also great to live for it.

I could only imagine what these trees had seen on that horrible day. Today the weeds were trampled not by soldiers, rape and nuns but by pilgrims remembering this event in solidarity with the continuing struggles of the Salvadoran people. Passing the peace of Christ on this spot was powerful. Each hug and handshake said clearly peace with justice. This was our third communion in two days — it had me wondering about spiritual diabetes.

Back at our hotel we met with an Englishman who reports for the BBC, NPR and the Washington Post. He explained that in 1988 the international community told the FMLN (leftist guerrillas) that if they win the war there would be no money to run and rebuild the country. The FMLN realized a negotiated settlement was the answer. The Offensive of 1989 effectively disproved claims from the right that the left was loosing steam. The guerrillas carried out the offensive to win respect at the negotiating table. They nearly won the war.

Americans who were in San Salvador during the '89 offensive tell fascinating stories. Our guide was going home on the eve of the anticipated explosion. He forgot the beer, drove a block to the store, got out of his car, turned around and the previously empty street was filled with fully armed guerrillas. He crawled under his car, waited out 30 minutes of gunfire, noticed that the lady in the shop was actually still open, bought the beer and went home to sit out the rest of the battle. A Center for Global Education group, just like ours, had just arrived and spent four days holed up in our hotel. The reporter remembered going into the rich neighborhood and running along side members of the coffee elite fleeing with Gucci bags filled with their belongings saying, "We can't kill all these people. We have to negotiate."

The new US policy in El Salvador is one of neglect and how to get cleanly out of this mess. Locals know that the post war battles will be a political. The FMLN knows its only future is as a political power rather than a military one. (Not an easy transition for the hardened commanders in the hills). The population (right and left) is of a mind set to oppose whoever (right or left) blocks the move towards peace. Colin Powell recently reportedly told foot-dragging right wingers that a tropical storm can be even worse than a desert storm.

Be a Patriot. Kill a Priest.

We visited the Democratic Convergence party headquarters -actually in the government now with 8 of 64 seats in congress. Three years ago their leadership was in exile for their own safety.

A deputy explained to us that it's clear now to most that negotiations, not war, is the way. The Oligarchy-backed far right military faction wants to cause chaos to derail negotiations. Even Bush himself sees he can only loose by maintaining a communist focus in El Salvador. Remember the standard insult from the right around the world is that the others are communists. With the end of US money in sight the right must deal with reality...and that's the people of this country. The chiefs of the army are nervous. El Salvador armed itself because political spaces were closed. That is changing. As a people we want to show the world a political El Salvador, able to solve its problems peacefully.

About 80% of Salvadoran activists are Christian. Faith powers them - even in the FMLN. El Salvador's rich history of martyrs led to this moment of negotiated peace.

The growth of sects is a problem throughout Latin American. It's a political, and not religious problem, imposed upon us from the North. It stops people from being involved in political action. Many are financed by US AID. Our local Christian TV station was brought to us with US AID money.

Next we crossed the hall and the political spectrum to meet with the far right Arena party. As I pressed the deputy on if the government is able to control the army to Christiani's satisfaction, a shady character appeared in the back and our guide decided we shouldn't pursue this topic. He had seen this guy at many of his meetings.

Then we drove through the elite class neighborhood to the lush and cool haven of learning, the UCA (University of Central America). This wasn't so cool in the offensive of 89. It was here that the Jesuit leadership of the school, six priests, were murdered. We visited the spot and heard the story, seeing gruesome photos and relics of the violence: a Bible ripped in two by machine gun bullets, a scorched portrait of Romero with a melted frame, another portrait with a bullet in the heart, and the rose garden planted on the spot of the murders by the caretaker whose wife and daughter were also killed so there would be no witnesses.

At the campus chapel next to the graves of the Jesuits were crosses of other nearly nameless victims of this war- names and dates of death on crosses, stacked like folding chairs against the wall, a quiet audience next to the much- visited graves of the six Jesuits. At the entrance of the chapel reads two famous Romero quotes: "With the people of El Salvador it's easy to be a good pastor." And "if they kill me I will be resurrected in the people of El Salvador." He knew when the military circulated slogans like "Be a patriot. Kill a priest." that they weren't kidding around.

That night, to shake things up a bit, I ganged up with seven others in two cabs and went to the Sheridan Hotel (scene of the famous guerilla attack embarrassing the Yankee green berets in '89) in search of local elites or First World agents of oppression. The place was pretty dead. A security guard followed us around until he figured we were too stupid to be of any trouble. We settled into the bar for rum and cokes, recognized, even here, as Cuba libres. We practiced saying CIA in pig latin. I said I was with the YMCA. We decided a fun way for peasants to play pranks on gringos enjoying "homestays" is to bed them down on the spot the family cow is potty trained on. I am working on a cure for US AID (Acquired Independence Deficiency) and pondering the relationship of the massacres of '32 and the early '80s to the Biblical Jubilee year.

Back at our hotel a dance was going on. It was the finale of the hair- styling convention. Imagine that, a hair-styling convention in El Salvador. Four of us talked ourselves in without the $10 cover and were immediately adopted by the nicely coiffed and dance-hungry ladies.

Salvadoran History Lesson

1522 - Land discovered by Europe, given to Conquistadors. Indigenous groups had communal system, no concept of land ownership.

1821 - Independence of local land-owners (Criollos) from Spain

Wealth came from crops:
Indigo - first plantations. Made purple dye.
Cacao - next big cash crop
Coffee - third stage, in the 1850s. Coffee grows well where cacao and indigo didn't, in the highlands. Unfortunately, this was the only affordable land left for people to live on. This very profitable "brown gold" takes three years to mature so it's impossible for the hand-to-mouth peasant to get into it as a business. Coffee only needs two to three months of labor a year so peasants will by definition be under-employed.

1881 - The Oligarchy declared all non-coffee land was rightfully the state's. The state then sold it to the highest bidders. There was no mass up-rising as El Salvador's infamous "14 families" emerge. These were mostly Europeans getting in on the bottom floor. (Christiani is Italian. His wife's family was German. They were among these).

1881 - National Guard (which the US funds today) was established in this same year. The roots of today's wealth and problems were planted in these coffee fields.

1929 - A first world depression is a developing world cataclysm. Wages and employment fall with the market.

1932 was a horrific year. Four percent of El Salvador's population was massacred as Indians organized with urban communists (whose leader was an intellectual named Farabundi Marti). Anyone in Indian clothes was killed. The uprising, with lousy organization and communication, was a total flop. It's called the Matanza (bigger than a massacre). 40,000 were killed in five days. To be an Indian was a crime (even today, you'll see no Indian dress). Marti was executed. The National Guard, in synch with the latest European styles, wore fascist uniforms. For the next generation, peasants looked only at the ground (a stark contrast today).

1950-1970 - Cotton and sugar cane became the new cash crops.

1970s - Export crop system collapses. With the help of Marx in the cities and liberation theology in the rural areas, the peasants organize. The stooped peasant was tired of carrying the weight of two repressive institutions - the Oligarchy and the church.

In Liberation Theology the priest is necessary primarily for sacramental purposes. He is directed from below. Because of liberation theology, peasant raised his eyes. The FMLN (the Farabundi Marti National Liberation Front, named after the early organizer who was executed in the Matanza of '32) was formed to work on the land distribution problem.

Colonial Theology (pre-Liberation Theology Catholicism): 1. strict separation of heaven and earth, bodies and souls 2. stressed individual rather than community needs. 3. wealth was a blessing, poverty was God's will. Don't question it. Slave ships were named after Jesus and the saints. 4. stressed obedience to authority, church and political. Salvation was determined by your acceptance of your place. 5. when you die - heaven is great. That's all that matters.

The roll of the priest is to help assure your salvation along these lines. Only in '65 after Vatican II did things change. Bibles became available in Spanish. People read the word.

About this time, many Christian workers came to Central America after Castro, enthusiastic soldiers in the fight to stop the spread of Communism. Ironically, their first hand experience with poor communities led them to get liberation theology rolling.

In Liberation Theology all have dignity by being creatures of God therefore society should be structured to give that dignity. Liberation Theology rescued Jesus. The Virgin Mary was the prime focus in traditional Latin American outlook. Traditionally, women in church could identify closest with the pain of a woman whose son had been crucified.

In Liberation Theology, Jesus lived out the faith to its ultimate consequence and was killed. He challenged all aspects of life - like Romero, Jesuits and Base Christian leaders. These people are manifestations of Jesus.

"Gospel" was a word used in Roman times for a political message, a military propaganda term of the Roman army. The cross announced Rome's "good news" that another subversive had been done away with...a Roman victory. For Christians to use the Gospel and the cross was a radical turning of the tables.

Methods of Liberation Theology: 1: Analyze and reflect on your life situation socially 2: study scriptures in light of this and in search of direction. 3: take action. Base Christian Community success is based on real participation and the solidarity of the communities.

Vatican II decided that the church must be in this world. "How can the Bible be relevant to modern world of progress. The Medellien conference of Latin American bishops in 1988 followed this up asking the Bible can be applied to the oppressed and poor world. 1. Institutionalized violence (landlessness and structural hunger) is as sinful as individual violence. 2. Neutrality is impossible. If you're not involved, you're involved. 3. The Bible preaches a preferential option for the poor.

The answer the "You're not of this world" argument, interpret this as one can stand up to and not conform to the dominant culture.